"We Saw Everything Quite Distinctly": Titanic & the SS City of New York

According to the records of the National Meteorological Library & Archive of the United Kingdom, Titanic's maiden voyage was more or less as lovely a spring day as one could behold. "Southampton had a dry night with clear spells," the reports reads, and "the morning dawned fine with some good spells of sunshine... Despite the sunshine it was a chilly day with a cool north-westerly wind."

And thus, Titanic set sail at about 12:05 p.m.

Second-Class passenger Lawrence Beesley described the scene as Titanic crept away from the dock.

Soon after noon the whistles blew for friends to go ashore, the gangways were withdrawn, and the Titanic moved slowly down the dock, to the accompaniment of last messages and shouted farewells of those on the quay. There was no cheering or hooting of steamers' whistles from the fleet of ships that lined the dock, as might seem probable on the occasion of the largest vessel in the world putting to sea on her maiden voyage; the whole scene was quiet and rather ordinary, with little of the picturesque and interesting ceremonial which imagination paints as usual in such circumstances.

Excerpt from "The Loss of the S.S. Titanic" by Lawrence Beesley, published in 1912.

Despite the lackluster start, those crowds watching on the quay were no less likely to marvel at Titanic's magnitude, especially compared to other vessels docked in her vicinity.

Having looked down on the world from the Titanic's boat deck, I went on the quay and looked up at the projecting heads of the passengers. It was like standing by the wall of St. Paul's Cathedral and craning your neck to get a glimpse of the Apostles on the roof...

For the first yards a caterpillar might have raced the Titanic. It was difficult to imagine such a tremendous object moving, so slowly. I walked along to the end of the deep water dock and saw her come by at a slow pace within a stone's throw of the quay. Her propellers churned the green sea up to liquid grey mud.

And it was shortly thereafter that Titanic nearly collided with the SS City of New York.

As Titanic left her berth, her size and weight caused water displacement, resulting in significant swells.

Nearby, both the RMS Oceanic and the SS City of New York were moored and lashed together alongside the dock. Both vessels had been "laid up" due to the coal strike that had immobilized so many of Titanic's peers.

The SS City of New York on or about August 9, 1914, carrying passengers fleeing the Great War. From the George Grantham Bain collection, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Titanic passed by both ships, which caused an enormous bulge of water that lifted the Oceanic and New York to a height, before dropping them just as suddenly.

The Oceanic recovered from the jostle, but the New York did not fare so well. Its hawsers--otherwise known as the wrist-thick, steel mooring cables that bound her to the dock--snapped and flew backward.

The sound of the breaking hawsers, people said, was like the cracking of a gun.

 As the Titanic moved majestically down the dock, the crowd of friends keeping pace with us along the quay, we came together level with the steamer New York lying moored to the side of the dock along with the Oceanic, the crowd waving "good-byes" to those on board as well as they could for the intervening bulk of the two ships. But as the bows of our ship came about level with those of the New York, there came a series of reports like those of a revolver, and on the quay side of the New York snaky coils of thick rope flung themselves high in the air and fell backwards among the crowd, which retreated in alarm to escape the flying ropes. We hoped that no one was struck by the ropes, but a sailor next to me was certain he saw a woman carried away to receive attention. 

Excerpt from "The Loss of the S.S. Titanic" by Lawrence Beesley, published in 1912.

Unmanned and violently unmoored, the SS City of New York began drifting stern-side directly toward Titanic.

Captain Smith immediately ordered the engines "full astern", and Titanic's starboard anchor was partially lowered in anticipation of a collision. One of the tugboats nearby, called Vulcan, rushed forward and, with deft maneuvering, brought the New York under tow.

Happily the prompt action of the men in command and the quick use of a couple of steam tugs prevented a collision, and the mighty Titanic at last steamed away like a proud queen of the sea, an hour late but not at all worried.

Titanic and New York avoided the crash by mere feet.

Ultimately, The New York was urged back to dock by a coterie of tugboats; Titanic, delayed by an hour but otherwise unbothered, "quietly glided, in brilliant sunshine" further and away.

Photo taken by the Odell family from the deck of the Titanic, during its near-collision with the SS City of New York, April 10, 1912.


Perhaps those who had the clearest view and grandest scope of the near-disaster were two assistant electricians named Albert Ervine and Alfred Middleton, both of whom had managed to mount Titanic's aft and fourth funnel. This is where they found themselves for the duration of the calamity.

Albert Ervine later wrote the following in a letter posted back home to his mother Helen.

As soon as the Titanic began to move out of the dock, the suction caused the Oceanic, which was alongside her berth, to swing outwards, while another liner broke loose altogether and bumped into the Oceanic. The gangway of the Oceanic simply dissolved.

Middleton and myself were on top of the after funnel, so we saw everything quite distinctly. I thought there was going to be a proper smash up owing to the high wind; but I don't think anyone was hurt.

Albert George Ervine was born in Belfast the summer of 1893. He was named after his father, and called "Bertie" by his family.

Young Albert Ervine was educated at the Belfast Royal Academy, thereafter studying at Methodist College and the Municipal Technical Institute. His apprenticeship then commenced at Coombe, Barber & Coombe, before he moved on to Harland & Woolf, where he studied so-called "marine electronics."

By 1911, the census reflects Albert Ervine as an unwed electrician.

Electrical plant of the Titanic's elder sister RMS Olympic. Taken in May of 1911 by Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff.


Bertie Ervine is recorded as having provided electrical work on the RMS Titanic during its construction. He entered into the employ of the White Star Line after returning from the maiden voyage of another vessel: the SS Maloja, which had likewise been constructed by Harland & Wolff.

It is reported that Bertie Ervine had actively petitioned the White Star Line, hoping to be assigned to Titanic. And so, on April 2, 1912, Bertie Ervine walked out of the Belfast house that he shared with his parents and siblings, and set off to the docks.

Titanic docked in Southampton on April 10, 1912.


Somewhere along his way that day, or perhaps once he arrived, Bertie linked up with fellow assistant electrician Alfred Middleton.

The two boys had been good friends for some time, presumably due to their parents belonging to the same religious community. Having been hired as crew for Titanic's "delivery trip" to Southampton, England, they would depart immediately following the successful completion of her sea trials.

Titanic came to rest at Southampton shortly after midnight on April 4th. And on April 6th, Bertie and Alfred signed on to Titanic once again, for the vessel's maiden voyage.

In the letter to his mother, Bertie outlined his work schedule as "on duty morning and evening from 8 to 12; that is four hours work and eight hours off." Therein, Bertie also described a drill, or "full dress rehearsal of an emergency" that his group had conducted that morning, April 11th.

They had, he wrote, practiced the functionality of the watertight doors.

(Have just been away attending the alarm bell.)

This morning we had a full dress rehearsal of an emergency. The alarm bells all rang for ten seconds, then about 50 doors, all steel, gradually slid down into their places, so that water could not escape from any one section into the next.

So you see it would be impossible for the ship to be sunk in collision with another...

Three days later, on the night of April 14th, Titanic struck the iceberg.

And though she strained and flooded and foundered, her electricity did not fail until her final moments.

Assistant electrician Bertie Ervine was never recorded as having been sighted on deck at any point during the sinking. And for almost two hours, from 11:40 p.m. until 2 a.m.--approximately 20 minutes before Titanic fell beneath the waves--her lights somehow remained on, and her wireless radio remained operational.

Ervine is, therefore, presumed to have remained at his post deep within the ship, electing to sacrifice his safety and his life to make sure that Titanic's power would not go out.

What scenes were enacted to immortalize forever the engineers who kept the ship lighted, and afloat, giving a last chance of escape to passengers and even officers? How can we ever realize what it meant to find courage to reject the thought of beloved dependents on shore, and to face death in stoke-hold and engine room?

Bertie Ervine was the youngest member of Titanic's engineering crew. His remains were not recovered.

He was 18 years old.

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